Culture  All roads lead to…

CCA exhibit "Journeys" puts architecture and migration in context

The major problem with the study of Architecture (capital ‘A’) is elitism. In my experience, architectural history is very ivory tower-esque. This has always been the case; the great Gothic cathedrals that defined the architecture of the Middle Ages were utterly remote from the wattle and daub homes of the proletariat. The same can be said of 21st century architecture. It is characterized by expensive and complex structures of concrete, steel, and glass that those of us in major cities might use occasionally, but by and large most of the population has little do with, nor understands.

These epoch-defining buildings commemorated in history books do not accurately represent the history of daily human life. It is for this reason that an exhibition exploring our built environment as it is experienced by a wide array of social groups – not just a select few – is to be celebrated.

“Architecture is a public concern,” stated Giovanna Borasi, the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (CCA) curator of contemporary architecture. “Journeys: How travelling fruit, ideas, and buildings rearrange our environment,” recognizes just that. This wonderful new exhibition at the CCA analyses how various processes, such as migration and the influence of place, shape and change the architectural environment and in a broader sense, the physical world. The exhibition constitutes 15 interrelated “stories,” each connected with the idea of the “Journey,” which is the lens through which the analysis is focused.

These stories are presented through mixed media – text accompanying objects and photos. A particularly striking story is entitled “Inheritance.” It looks at some 17,000 African American slaves, who in the early 19th century were freed under the proviso that they emigrate to Liberia. This was perceived as some sort of a “return home,” although as they were born and raised in America (albeit against their will) this was not really the case. What is fascinating here is the houses they built upon arrival in West Africa. As the photos on display demonstrate, they were remarkably similar in likeness to the grand plantation mansions of the Southern states. However, there existed a certain uncanniness in the similarity; these houses were the same, and yet not the same. Somewhere along the journey from the U.S. to Liberia the image of these buildings became distorted in the memories of those who had witnessed them. What is produced is at once a strange hybrid of African and American architecture, and a powerful testament to the impression the buildings of one’s home can make.

Another arresting piece is “Configuration.” Between 1954 and 1975 the government of Newfoundland encouraged 300 isolated communities to resettle in more central areas. As buying a new house was unrealistically expensive, people towed their houses with them across the ice and sea. The marvellous photos on display illustrating this passage conjure the image of a snail carrying its home on its back.

But it is not only people and ideas that migrate. The exhibition ends with the story of the humble coconut. It shows that coconuts too have migrations of their own, travelling great distances on ocean currents, and washing up ashore up to four months later to grow in distant lands. “Laws cannot curtail the movement of the coconut,” the wall panel reads.

Migration is perpetual and unstoppable; it is a machine that moves only forward. “Forecasts for the coming decades indicate that migrations may eventually involve as many as a billion people”, said Mirko Zardini, CCA director and chief curator. If architecture is a public concern, so is immigration. As evidence of this Borasi suggests we “look at Angela Merkel’s recent declaration that multikulti [the German policy of multiculturalism] has utterly failed, and the ensuing debates she has sparked.” If the exhibition is anything, it is timely.

Understanding the impact of migrations past, present, and future is an essential aspect of understanding how the physical world around us is shaped, and shapes us. “Journeys” draws revealing parallels between architecture and migration to tell a human story of the built environment. I’m going to refrain from telling you to “make your own journey down to 1920 rue Baile to check out the exhibition,” but seriously, going to the CCA and seeing this for yourself is more than worthwhile.